PASADENA, Calif. (GMC) -- Even a week later, it's all kind of hard to believe. At the time? Like a dream come true. After fighting long lines and belligerent security guards to get into the stadium, I walked through Tunnel 3 and into Nirvana, otherwise known as the Rose Bowl, the most beautiful stage in college football. Soon enough the Iowa band was putting the finishing touches on the National Anthem, the B-2 Stealth Bomber was soaring overhead, and the teams were lining up for the opening kickoff.
As always, the Cardinal received the kick, and while there was some disappointment that Christian McCaffrey didn't get an opportunity for a return, that disappointment wouldn't last long. Fans were still standing and cheering loudly as Kevin Hogan settled into the shotgun a few yards behind his massive offensive line, with McCaffrey poised to his right, waiting to make history.
We'll never know if this play was a designed in response to some of the comments we'd heard from the Hawkeyes during the week prior to the game, with some players claiming not to know who he was, but what happened next served as an introduction. Not politely knocking to meet a new neighbor, but violently kicking in the door.
Hogan looked to his left when he received the snap, subtly pulling the linebackers in that direction, while McCaffrey circled to the right out of the backfield. Safety Jordan Lomax read his key correctly and came up in coverage, but McCaffrey lost him easily with a shoulder shake to the right, then cut hard to his left towards the middle of the field. Hogan's pass couldn't have been better. McCaffrey picked it out of the air without breaking stride, reached top speed in the blink of an eye, and raced the rest of the 75 yards without being touched.
It had only been one play and eleven seconds, but already everyone wearing black and gold knew exactly who Christian McCaffrey was. If this was Hawkeye Nation's first glimpse of him, it seemed appropriate, because this was the mirror version of the play David Shaw used to introduce the Boy Wonder to Stanford fans back in the fall of 2014. Midway through the second quarter of the season opener against UC-Davis, McCaffrey made his debut. Here's what I wrote at the time:
...the most electric moment of the game came on the Cardinal's next possession. After taking over at the Stanford 46, Hogan faced a 2nd and 8 from his own 48. Young Christian McCaffrey, the true freshman who has been drawing nothing but raves from players, coaches, and observers throughout the summer, lined up in the backfield to Hogan's left. He ran a simple route, bending around the clashing linemen and opening up to Hogan just five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Hogan's pass was high, but it didn't matter. (It's McCaffrey's pass-catching skills that separate him from other elite backs.) McCaffrey stretched high to make the grab, turned upfield, and simply vanished, running 45 yards untoucheddown the middle of the field.
This was more than just another touchdown, and it wasn't just a young kid getting a taste of action in a game that was out of hand -- it was an announcement. Some fans were surprised when Shaw hinted that we might see McCaffrey get some touches this fall, and the prevailing sentiment, I think, was that it would be foolish to burn up his redshirt year. But in the time that it took McCaffrey to race into the end zone, any doubt was erased. The future is now, and we can expect McCaffrey to be a big part of the Cardinal attack this season and in seasons to come. (We can also expect to see him in New York one day posing with a trophy, but that's a discussion for another time.)
But back to the game at hand. It's hard to explain the euphoria that this let loose in the stands. Watching from high above, we knew almost immediately that the play would finish in the end zone, so the last fifty yards were more celebration than anticipation, and soon we were high-fiving everyone within arm's reach, starting friendships that would last the next three hours.
The folks on the Iowa sidelines and stands must've been stunned by being down by seven before the seats were warm, but they couldn't have been too concerned. Even when quarterback C.J. Beathard and the Hawkeye offense spent just two minutes on a three-and-out, they must've still been hopeful, but that's only because they couldn't see the freight train that was bearing down on them.
The next Stanford possession started at the 26, and once again it was more McCaffrey. After an innocuous five-yard gain on first down, the player who didn't win the Heisman came up with a play that defines his greatness even more than that earlier touchdown. He took a handoff from Hogan in the backfield, and patiently skipped along the line of scrimmage, hopped over two fallen linemen, trotted to his right and dodged around a block, then finally found some open field and burst ahead to complete a 22-yard gain. McCaffrey might be the fastest player on the field, but this play showed that he's so much more than that.
He ran for 19 more yards on the next play, lined up at receiver three plays later and converted a key 3rd and 9 with a nifty 12-yard gain on a quick screen, then pounded ahead for seven more yards out of the Wildcat on the play after that.
Work horse? Certainly. But McCaffrey also serves as a fairly effective decoy. On 2nd and 3 from the Iowa 8, Hogan called for the read option. When the play started to the right and Hogan appeared to put the ball in McCaffrey's lap, all defensive eyes flowed with number five, giving Hogan a simple read. He pulled the ball back and headed back to the left, where only Jordan Lomax stood between him and the end zone. Lomax was already having a bad day, and now it was Hogan who would take advantage of him. Hogan headed towards the pylon, but he put his foot in the ground at the five and stuttered back to his right, leaving Lomax in his wake before breaking into the Hogan Hop into the end zone for the Cardinal's second touchdown of the quarter.
Even down 14-0 just six minutes into the game, the Hawkeyes weren't ready to fold. C.J. Beathard and the offense came out and began to string together first downs, one with a seven-yard completion to Jacob Hillyer and another on a fourteen-yard quarterback scramble. In hindsight, this drive seems insignificant. How, after all, do we pinpoint a turning point in a four-touchdown blowout? But what happened next was arguably the most important play of the game.
Only minutes earlier a conversation between the knowledgable fans behind us had turned to the development of Stanford's young defensive backs, and one gentleman explained that he wasn't yet sold on Quenton Meeks, the true freshman nickelback who had rescued the Cardinal's season with two interceptions against Washington State. I couldn't hold my tongue. I turned around to defend one of my favorite players on the team. "Are you kidding? Quenton Meeks is an absolute stud!" I exclaimed. "Two years from now you and I will be sitting here in the stands of the 2018 Rose Bowl, and we'll see him for what he is -- Stanford's next great cornerback."
It was a pointless conversation, but perhaps my words had carried down to Mr. Meeks's ears. On 3rd and 3 from the Stanford 36, Meeks lined up across from slot receiver Matt VandeBerg and twitched before the snap as if ready to pounce. VandeBerg ran a soft out pattern to the sideline, but it was far too soft. Meeks saw what was coming immediately, jumped the route, and snagged Beathard's pass at the 34. Like McCaffrey's touchdown on the game's opening snap, this play was a touchdown as soon as the ball hit Meeks's hands, so I must confess to missing part of his sprint down the sidelines. While all around me were celebrating, I turned around to punctuate my earlier conversation with the Doubting Thomas behind me. We couldn't speak, of course, what with the bedlam erupting around us, but I pointed at him in triumph, and he admitted defeat, jokingly bowing down in my direction.
The Hawkeyes should have been bowing down as well. Before that pick six, they were driving down the field, building confidence with each first down. A touchdown would've split the deficit to 14-7, and we'd have had a game. But Meeks closed the door on those thoughts, and even though the first quarter wasn't yet over, the game certainly appeared to be.
Things couldn't have started worse for Iowa, we thought, but soon things would get even worse. The two teams combined to produce three straight three-and-outs to close out the first quarter and open the second, and the Hawkeyes lined up to punt with 14:30 to play before halftime. McCaffrey fielded Dillon Kidd's punt at his own 37, and the fun began.
Most big punt returns start with the returner making one gunner miss. On this play, though, McCaffrey made six players miss. Five Hawkeyes converged on him as he received the punt, but he danced around them effortlessly before heading upfield and dismissing linebacker Jack Hockaday, one of Iowa's surest tacklers, leaving him lying in the grass. From there he turned on the jets, took advantage of a summersaulting pancake block from Brandon Simmons, and cruised into the end zone.
The player who should've won the Heisman had taken over the Rose Bowl, and somehow it was completely expected and wholly unbelievable all at once. As he sprinted towards the far corner of the field, I couldn't even applaud. Instead I collapsed onto the shoulders of my seat mate, completely overwhelmed by what I was seeing.
Twenty years earlier I had sat in the stands of the old Stanford Stadium and watched Notre Dame's Raghib "Rocket" Ismail put on a clinic against the Stanford defense. He was so much better than everyone else on the field that night that he changed the parameters of the game the same way a black hole bends the light. Nothing in the twenty-nine seasons of Stanford football that I've watched, not even the past six glorious years, ever made me think I'd see someone like this in a Stanford uniform, a player who is not only the best on the field, but the best in the country -- by a long shot.
So in that moment, as McCaffrey was sprinting across the grass and breaking hearts across the Midwest, I didn't cheer; I focused. I knew that one day I would have to tell the story of what happened in Pasadena on the first day of 2016, and I knew that I'd have to get it right.
The most perplexing thing in the stadium at this point was the scoreboard. It told us everything we needed to know about the game, but nothing it said made sense. Stanford 28, Iowa 0, 14:12 to play in the second quarter. A friend sitting to my left asked if I thought the offense might slow things down a bit, but I told him that we might see quite the opposite. I told him I thought the playbook might open up even wider, and we might see something we'd never seen before. Soon enough, we would.
After another quick Iowa possession ended in another punt (no touchdown this time from McCaffrey; slacker), the Cardinal took over eighty-five yards from the Hawkeye goal line and went right back to what had been working all game long. On first and 10 from the 27, Hogan handed the ball to the best player in America for a simple run up the middle. Nothing is simple with McCaffrey, however, and as the offensive line destroyed the Iowa defensive front, number five burst into the secondary, veered slightly to his left, and raced to the end zone for what looked like his third touchdown of the day. It would've been a 73-yard score, but a penalty flag negated it. Devon Cajuste had grabbed onto Desmond King's shoulder pad, erasing the points but not McCaffrey's brilliance.
A few minutes later David Shaw opened the playbook as wide as it's ever been, just as expected. On 1st and 10 from the Iowa 31, Hogan took the snap from under center and turned towards McCaffrey. Suddenly, though, he was bending over as if to scoop up a fumble, and then he was back up again, scanning down field to where Michael Rector was streaking for daylight. If there's one thing Kevin Hogan has always done well it's throw the deep ball, and he hit Rector in stride for the Cardinal's fifth touchdown in twenty-two minutes. Stanford 35, Iowa 0.
Even from our vantage point in the stands, the play seemed choreographed, with McCaffrey feigning a dive for the ball at the exact instant that Hogan appeared to fumble, and television replays quickly confirmed what we suspected. Hogan had merely bent over and dragged the ball across the turf before straightening up and throwing the touchdown. Afterwards Shaw acknowledged that the play had been inspired by Boise State and had been lurking in the Stanford playbook for years. They had practiced it from time to time, but it had never made it into a game plan until now. And to think, only two three months ago fans were up in arms over Shaw's conservative play calling.
Meanwhile, the defense was playing pretty well, also. C.J. Beathard and the Iowa offensive coaching staff must've headed into the game thinking they'd be able to run on the Cardinal (they had averaged roughly 200 yards per game on the ground) and use their short passing game to take advantage of Stanford's soft pass coverage. Things were different in this game, however. The Cardinal's defensive backs were much more aggressive, and their man coverage was often so good that even when Beathard had time to throw (this wasn't often), he rarely had anywhere to throw the ball. Of Stanford's seven sacks, at least four were clearly coverage sacks, as Iowa's receivers ran their routes, couldn't get open, then stood around watching Aziz Shittu or Solomon Thomas or Peter Kalambayi or Brennan Scarlett or Kevin Palma pounding their quarterback into the Rose Bowl turf.
This was the best game the Cardinal defense played all year. Yes, things got easier as the point differential got larger, but Blake Martinez and his squad were dominant from Iowa's first possession, forcing three-and-outs on three of Iowa's first four series and setting the tone for the entire game. Shittu earned his Defensive MVP trophy with a game-high 10 tackles, including 3.5 TFLs, and the rest of the front seven harassed Beathard throughout the game. When analyzing the performance of the young defensive backs in 2015, I wondered if their eventual development might allow the entire defense to be more aggressive in 2016. I had meant September 2, 2016; it turned out Duane Akina was thinking January 1.
It had been desperation time for the Hawkeyes since McCaffrey's opening touchdown, but now they were forced to admit it. They launched a long drive that found Stanford territory, but when a short pass on 3rd and 13 wound up seven yards short of the sticks, coach Kirk Ferentz had no choice but to leave his offense out on the field. A five-yard false start penalty dug the hole a bit deeper, but there was still no point in punting from the Stanford 31. (Who would do something that foolish?)
Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson had started playing several second stringers on this drive, but on the 4th and 12 play he showed that the shutout was important. He dialed up a blitz, sending six stormtroopers after the quarterback, completely overwhelming the beleaguered Hawkeye offensive line. Martinez got there first, taking a swipe at Beathard and knocking him off balance, and Kalambayi finished him off.
With 2:01 to play and the ball on their own 37, the Stanford offense came out looking for more points and pushed the ball to the Iowa 43. Hogan took two shots into the end zone, first to Rector (who was wide open) and then to Isaiah Brandt-Sims, but neither pass connected, and the Cardinal had to settle for a 35-0 halftime lead.
The halftime numbers were mind-boggling. The Cardinal had needed only 25 plays to amass those 35 points, and they had set Rose Bowl records for most points in the first quarter and in the first half. (It's one thing to set a record in the Foster Farms Bowl; it's quite another to do so in the Granddaddy of 'em all.) Oh, and young Christian McCaffrey, the player some writers had left off their Heisman ballots, had already piled up 248 all-purpose yards. Across the nation I'd imagine lots of folks were turning off their TVs, but Stanford fans couldn't wait to see what happened next.
We didn't know what Coach Ferentz could possibly say to his team at halftime, but I'm sure he didn't suggest a three-and-out for the offense. Unfortunately, that's just what happened. The defense didn't do anything fancy, they just dominated. Fifth-year senior Aziz Shittu lined up across from true freshman guard James Daniels on third down, and the matchup went about the way you'd expect. Shittu bull-rushed straight through him, then pulled down Beathard for a nine-yard sack, and the second half already looked an awful lot like the first.
Two plays into the next possession, Mr. McCaffrey was back doing McCaffrey things. He took a quick handoff and followed his blockers to the left before realizing there was more daylight to his right. He quickly cut back towards the green grass and rambled for thirty yards down to the Iowa 18. Unlike every other running back in Stanford history, McCaffrey is a true home run threat. In addition to his two long touchdowns, neither of which came on a hand off, McCaffrey had runs of 22, 25, 25, and 30 yards during this game. Iowa's longest run of the day was for fourteen.
But this drive wouldn't end in the end zone. When Hogan's screen pass to Francis Owusu was batted down at the line of scrimmage, Conrad Ukropina came in and pumped in a 31-yard field goal to make the score 38-0.
The Hawkeyes finally seemed completely demoralized, and their offense spent just ninety seconds on the field before punting again, but then there was a flicker of hope. Facing 4th and inches on his own 44, Coach Shaw decided to punt rather than risk a turnover on downs. It was a wise decision, but what happened instead was much worse. Reed Miller's snap sailed high over Alex Robinson's head, and by the time the punter was able to track it down, the ball had gotten all the way to the Stanford 25.
The shutout was clearly in danger, but the Stanford defense wasn't ready to give up points just yet. Solomon Thomas burst through for an eight-yard sack on first down, and two plays later, showing his athleticism by dropping back in coverage, Thomas nearly knocked down Beathard's pass while defending tailback Jordan Canzeri on fourth down. But the Hawkeyes would get no deeper than that, and they'd eventually pull the zero down from their side of the scoreboard with a mildly embarrassing 39-yard field goal from Marshall Koehn. It was hard for Stanford fans to be disappointed with a 35-point lead in the Rose Bowl, but the air definitely went out of the stadium at that point. Everyone had been rooting for the shutout.
The third quarter ended with a sack of Kevin Hogan on 3rd and 22, forcing a punt on the first play of the fourth quarter. After a nice punt from Robinson was nullified by a careless illegal motion penalty, a second punt was returned 38 yards by Desmond King to the Stanford 31; three plays later Beathard hit a wide open Matt VandeBerg for a 36-yard touchdown, and the score was 38-9 after Koehn shanked the extra point.
Stanford's next possession looked for a while like most of their previous possessions had. Starting at their own 30, a 25-yard run from McCaffrey on 2nd and 4 moved the ball to the Iowa 39, and eventually the Cardinal had a 1st and goal at the ten. (It should be noted that that run also gave McCaffrey the Rose Bowl record for all-purpose yardage and moved him past 2,000 yards rushing on the season.)
After a false start and two three-yard runs from Hogan, it was third down at the nine. Hogan dropped back to pass, and when he saw his big tight end locked in man-to-man coverage, he did something he's done dozens of times over the past four seasons -- he threw the ball to a spot and trusted his man to make the play. Whether it's been Zach Ertz or Levine Toilolo or now Austin Hooper, it's usually worked out. This time safety Miles Taylor was able to overcome Hooper's size advantage and knock the ball up into the air. It fluttered down into the hands of Josey Jewell for a fluky interception, and the Cardinal was turned away.
Buoyed by this sudden good fortune, the Hawkeye offense produced its best drive of the day, an eighty-yard march against a group of Stanford's second- and third-string defenders that ended with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Beathard to Akrum Wadley. There were less than three minutes left in the game at this point, and the Cardinal still held a commanding 38-16 lead, but I'll admit to being a bit disappointed. After the five-touchdown feast in the first half, the second half had been a near famine, with only Conrad Ukropina's lonely third quarter field goal on the board. Somehow it felt like there should have been more.
Perhaps Kevin Hogan felt the same. After Iowa's failed onside kick gave the ball to Stanford at the Hawkeye 49, Hogan threw a quick pass to McCaffrey for seven yards (making him the first player in Rose Bowl history to have 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving), then looked for something more. Afterwards Shaw would explain that he had forgotten to tell Hogan not to look deep if the corner blitzed, but that's exactly what happened.
Desmond King lined up across from Rector, but when he came on the blitz (and was stoned by Barry J. Sanders), that left safety Jordan Lomax, the same man who was torched by McCaffrey on the opening play and then torched by Kevin Hogan on the Cardinal's second touchdown, as the last line of defense. Naturally, Rector torched him with a double move and broke free down the left sideline. Kevin Hogan launched the last pass of his brilliant Stanford career, and it produced his 75th and last touchdown.
Moments later, a typically thoughtful Hogan heard the chants of his name reigning down from the Stanford stands and jumped atop a bench to salute his fans. This 102nd Rose Bowl will always be remembered for the exhibition put on by McCaffrey, but this was a special afternoon and evening for Kevin Hogan as well, and this was the most appropriate place for his career to come to an end. He had played here five times in four years, beating UCLA twice and winning two Rose Bowls, and there's no doubt that he'll make a return trip to Pasadena in ten or fifteen years for enshrinement in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.
It would be fitting if Christian McCaffrey were standing beside him for his own enshrinement, because what he did in this game was more than just amazing. After Lane Veach recovered an Iowa fumble with eleven seconds remaining and Hogan came back out to take a knee, we finally had a final score (45-16) and a stat sheet that might never be matched.
After toiling in the obscurity of late night games on the West Coast, McCaffrey took this national stage and made it his own. He racked up a Rose Bowl record 368 all-purpose yards, including 172 rushing and 105 receiving, but not even those numbers do his performance justice. Ninety-four thousand pairs of eyes followed his every move, and ninety-four thousand hearts beat faster each time he touched the ball. The Hawkeyes had surely come into this game with a defense focused on number five, but it didn't matter. He looked like a varsity star playing against the freshman team, and he did it all with a smile.
If you were a writer watching from your living room on the East Coast, just weeks after sending in a Heisman ballot with someone else's name at the top, shame on you. But if you were a Stanford fan watching from somewhere afar like Washington, DC or Palo Alto or Thailand or the Bahamas, or even if you were a fourteen-year-old boy at your first Rose Bowl, you now carry with you a weighty responsibility. You have to remember what you saw.
Fifty years from now a player will have a great game in the Rose Bowl, and the name Christian McCaffrey will flash across your television screen. You'll lean over to your granddaughter, and you'll tell her that you remember. You were watching on the first day of 2016 when Mr. McCaffrey showed the world that he was more than just the best player in America -- he was the best player in the history of Stanford football.